October 1, 2019, 7:37 AM · Hello,
I'm unsure how to ask this. So I'll just ask. When you have a luthier make you an instrument, what kind of details do they need to know?
I posted in a Facebook group about a week ago about buying a viola for 5K. Many people suggested it may be better to get a new instrument for that price (based off of their experience).
I realise this may be a stupid question, but hey ho.

Thanks in advance.

Replies (48)

October 1, 2019, 7:47 AM · I think its a neat question - but you are likely to get much more information over on Maestronet. That's where the luthiers hang out, and they are incredibly helpful.
October 1, 2019, 8:32 AM · The #1 thing a maker needs to know is your budget. If it's $5k, most of them won't need to know any more than that. Double that, and then some might continue asking about other things you want.
October 1, 2019, 8:40 AM · Interesting Don - could you expand a bit? What would you get for 5K, and what extra options would be likely to come in for 10, 15, 20 ...
October 1, 2019, 8:42 AM · Elise I was thinking the same
Edited: October 1, 2019, 9:08 AM · For $5k, I can't think of any professional makers (in the U.S.) who would give you anything than a polite "no thank you". Some non-professionals maybe, or in some other country. For the higher levels, it's not the options so much as the reputation of the maker that determines the price.
Edited: October 1, 2019, 9:15 AM · Wouldn't you have to get pretty lucky to find a luthier who'd make you an instrument for $5k? Seems to me that $7-8k would be getting closer, and still from a little-known maker. Which, by the way, doesn't mean that either the tone or the playability would necessarily be notably inferior to a more expensive instrument.

On the other hand, I'd think that $5k should get you quite a decent current production workshop instrument, or perhaps a good used benchmade one by a lesser-known luthier.

(FWIW, IMHO, YMMV, etc. I don't claim to be a violist, just a hack fiddler with a healthy appreciation for a rich alto voice.)

October 1, 2019, 9:15 AM · I agree with Don Noon's opinion. Some time back I approached a well known maker with the same query (~$5k TO $7k) and was politely referred to Isfhin Violins and mentioning the Jay Haide line of violins.

I ended up getting a used violin instead that was sold by a professional violinist in Florida in my price range.

October 1, 2019, 9:19 AM · The people who commented on my post in said group, are from my area (ish) and seemed confident that I could get an instrument made for that price
Edited: October 1, 2019, 9:56 AM · A long-time friend of mine took up violin making as a hobby in his late 40s. Eventually he made and sold about 100 instruments.

He got the process down to about 120 hours. Considering all the overhead costs and need to support oneself and possibly family, a minimum income of about $100/hour of work or $12,000 for a violin (more for larger insruments) seems to be the very bottom of the price list for luthier-made violins in the "western world." I visited the traveling "Cremona show" three times and prices there would bear this out. Better instruments get higher prices and as makers' reputations grow so do the minimum prices they can command.

However, if you can find a good "amateur" maker you might get into your price range. One of the violas I now own definitely meets this criterion. I think one of the violins I bought years ago also fit this criterion. Unfortunately (for me) it was the violin my granddaughter chose when I offered her the choice of any of the 4 I owned at the time.

Another possible way to get a good instrument is to find a maker who re-graduates older instruments that otherwise have "good bones" but need some internal work. One of "my" makers did that for clients who needed instruments that cost less than his completely self-made instruments. That's how I got my other (and first) viola 46 years ago for $125.

October 1, 2019, 9:52 AM · The problem is a new amateur $5,000 violin is probably not going to be as good as a good $5,000 antique, or even a good $5,000 modern workshop violin.
October 1, 2019, 10:37 AM · I think the key word there is "probably." We are always looking for "outliers."
October 1, 2019, 10:56 AM · Maybe Jake is simply thinking of buying a new viola for 5K, not necessarily commissioning one which is likely to be a lengthy process with an uncertain outcome. Plenty of dealers should be able to offer contemporary instruments from various parts of the globe around that price, whereas I believe good old violas are much harder to come by. I recently auditioned a clutch of new violas in that price range at Guivier's in London. Several were by named British makers (all costing somewhat more than £5K) but the one I thought offered the best combination of qualities (at £4.5K) was a workshop instrument from William Harris Lee in Chicago.
October 1, 2019, 10:59 AM · Steve is correct I think
Edited: October 1, 2019, 11:36 AM · You can find a decent, even nice, viola for 5k, it just won't be an instrument made in a 1st world country by a single individual professional maker.

You say that "people" commented that you should be able to find something in your area. What is your area?

October 1, 2019, 11:58 AM · At $5k you're (barring getting lucky, as Andrew has noted) you're not so much commissioning a instrument as you are going to be getting a modern workshop violin, perhaps under the direction of a single maker in the workshop.

My violin is one such instrument (got it over 10 years ago) from William Harris Lee and cost $4500 at the time. If it's a shop like William Harris Lee, you may be able to offer some put on final adjustments, but your involvement with the process will be far less than an individual maker.

October 1, 2019, 12:36 PM · I love my Fevrot workshop viola, which was less than $5000.
October 1, 2019, 3:03 PM · After an intensive viola shopping tour last year I support that you might mainly look for higher end workshop violas in this price range, be them new or antique, and no matter the origin. Nevertheless, try out whatever comes into your way.
Edited: October 1, 2019, 3:09 PM · It's great to own a good viola, but when looking for your first one, the biggest part of the job is learning about what you're looking for. Not only in sound colors, but especially which size and type of model would suit you. Do you know already? Which purpose should it serve? (Just "second instrument" besides violin and a bit of pushing the borders? Or eventually complete a switch? Playing in orchestra, or eventually soloing? Should it bring you into - and eventually through - college?)
Edited: October 1, 2019, 3:39 PM · Jake - I seem to recall seeing something in your earlier posts to suggest that you are in the UK. If that is the case, then you could do worse than considering Anthony Nickolds

I was told recently that he charges £3,999 for a handmade violin commission, so I would think his price for a viola is in the correct ballpark for your budget. I hope this information is accurate - the person who relayed it owned two of his instruments (and loved them) and had asked for an insurance valuation for one of them and that was the figure he quoted.

October 1, 2019, 4:40 PM · Tony wrote:
Jake - I seem to recall seeing something in your earlier posts to suggest that you are in the UK. If that is the case, then you could do worse than considering Anthony Nickolds

I was told recently that he charges £3,999 for a handmade violin commission,"

Would that be a violin "handmade" at a factory in China?

October 1, 2019, 5:23 PM · David, handmade doesn't exclude the possibility of 100 hands. :)

I have a Zhu (MJZ) viola that cost $3500. It the workshop "AA" model. It has a big rich sound but it's not especially responsive. I only use it in amateur orchestras so the sound high up on the C and G strings is not important; I don't really even have the skill to test those regions of the instrument, so I don't care.

October 2, 2019, 12:24 AM · @David Burgess - Anthony Nickolds most certainly does not import from China. If you'd bothered to read the text on the page I linked to you would see that.

Having read your profile, I can see why you would feel threatened by a maker quietly going about his business in an unflashy, workman like way without snobbery.

October 2, 2019, 12:33 AM · And we're supposed to believe that this Mr Nickolds guy slaves away for less than min wage, just so you can buy super cheap violins 100% made by him????
October 2, 2019, 1:27 AM · Saying that, the luthier I used to repair my current viola charges a minumum of £3,000 for a comission. And his instruments should be good if his repair is anything to go by
October 2, 2019, 2:02 AM · At this end of the market I can't see any good reason for waiting months or years for a pig in a poke (and there's a finite chance it will be a pig!) when there are plenty of decent instruments you can audition thoroughly
October 2, 2019, 3:51 AM · It seems like a big mistake to commission an instrument from a luthier purely on the basis of competent repair work. I would be extremely hesitant to commission an instrument without trying at least a few of the luthier's other instruments first.
October 2, 2019, 4:07 AM · Tony wrote:
"@David Burgess - Anthony Nickolds most certainly does not import from China. If you'd bothered to read the text on the page I linked to you would see that.
Having read your profile, I can see why you would feel threatened by a maker quietly going about his business in an unflashy, workman like way without snobbery."

I had already read the page. Thank you.
Now can you please advise me what to do about the boogie monster under my bed? :-)

October 2, 2019, 5:06 AM · Andrew, the luthier is highly recommended by my previous teacher. I have played on a few of the instruments of his my teacher had
October 2, 2019, 7:03 AM · Lyndon - email the guy and ask him. You might find it educational.
October 2, 2019, 7:26 AM · David Burgess - I don't think your problem is the monster under the bed. Possibly the troll lying in it might be the real issue though. :-)
October 2, 2019, 7:47 AM · I wonder if the UK is a good place to go violin shopping for an American. The US dollar has gotten significantly stronger against the British Pound.
Edited: October 2, 2019, 9:52 AM · Tony, are you sayin' my wife is a troll, or would you care to otherwise explain how you reached that conclusion?
October 2, 2019, 8:55 AM · I'm only an occasional viola-player but it took a long time to find one I was satisfied with in that price range. Even my 17-incher from Yitamusic was better than most of them. It's also important to take into account exactly what kind of instrument you need, for what purpose? So I wouldn't dream of commissioning or buying one on spec, no matter how good the reputation of the maker. One of my quartet colleagues was blessed with an uncle who made instruments and insisted on giving her a viola which she felt obliged to play. She was never heard from again, on the C-string at least
October 2, 2019, 9:57 AM · David, not your wife of course. But maybe the other occupant.

If you want to know how I came to that conclusion I guess it was word association between your reference to a boogie monster and the tone and intent of the message in which you included that phrase.

Edited: October 2, 2019, 11:07 AM · Commissioning is not without risks, so look for a maker who shoulders as much of the risk as possible, such as one who will promptly and cheerfully refund any money paid, for almost any reason, including if you found something you are happy with in the interim, or if the delivered product does not meet YOUR expectations.

Doing this will not always be easy for a GENUINE maker, since many are living hand-to-mouth, even at the 15-20K price level.

3.5K for a fiddle from someone who supposedly does most of the work themself? Not very likely, realistic or sustainable. That's my perspective as one who is rather highly versed in both the making and restoration world.

Yes, one can find good value in factory violins. But I would rather that someone who sells some sort of modified factory violin just make that very clear up front. To some it will matter, and to others it won't.

Edited: October 2, 2019, 10:38 AM · You have to be a little bit gullible if you think a professional UK maker is hand making from scratch violins for $5000. I'm not saying its impossible, just very unlikely. Much more likely he is importing violins in the white and finishing them in the UK.
Edited: October 2, 2019, 10:32 AM · After trying a few newish student violas belonging to friends, I found the tone to be somewhat lacking in character. I called the luthier who has been doing my rehairs and asked if he had any old violas. Turned out he did have on consignment an old German trade viola that had been regraduated. As soon as I tried it, I liked its tone and responsiveness. Viola, bow, and case cost $1500. That's one fifth of what I paid for my commissioned violin, and I don't have to play the viola for two years to "play it in." Recently I read "The Violin Maker" by John Marchese --be sure to read it before you commission a violin!
Edited: October 2, 2019, 10:41 AM · Perhaps there's some sort of subsidy involved here, or maybe the cost of living in the UK is somehow low enough to make $5k (or £5k) a realistic price for the work of a non-"name" maker?

Just pulling a guess out of thin air … or, uh, somewhere. I know that one outfit Stateside advertises their higher end house brand violins as benchmade for under $4k, and I find that really hard to believe even if they are Chinese.

October 2, 2019, 10:53 AM · Chinese labour rates are $1/hr, that's how.
Edited: October 2, 2019, 5:16 PM · Tony, since I'm here in this forum I never found any snobbery or trolling in David's posts. I always experienced his opinion as balanced and helpful, and himself as a person with good humor who stayed rather humble despite his stellar success as a violin maker. And no matter the price any other luthier may ask for his products, be sure that for him there is nothing to be threatened by. Since his waiting list seems to be longer than the amount of time he's planning to continue his active career, he actively discourages potential customers.

David, it definitely IS possible for a single master luthier living in the "western world" to produce instruments in the 3,5-5k price range. It just depends on the process. I do know such a German luthier, even a relatively reputable one, whose (own, handmade) instruments range from 3,5-12k. Most probably something more for a commissioned instrument. For the cheaper instruments he uses power tools and serial production for the rough part of the process, but stays traditional for fine graduation and finishing. Nice spirit varnish, attractive antiquing. I don't know about his violas, but I tested a handful of his lower end violins which all were exceptionally good for the money, responsive with a strong sound and consistent tonal qualities. Definitely good enough for any pre-conservatory career, and maybe for even longer if you're not heading for one of the most prestigious institutions. And beautiful to look at, too. All the work is done by himself, with no pre-made third party components involved. It's all about bringing the production time down to a minimum. 35 hours spent on a 3,5k instrument makes similar income than 200 hours and a 20k instrument. But a 3,5k instrument will be far more easy to sell than a 20k, if you're not one of the big names. We're talking about serial production and NOT a commissioned instrument. But finally, why not...?! There is no law that the field of better student instruments had to be left to the larger companies on various continents.

October 2, 2019, 6:38 PM · Here my two cents about choosing a good viola, as a player.

Avoid monochrome instruments. Look for many colours and contrast, you can have that only when you have a good dynamic range.

With a good viola you can work with the bow to create colours. In most violas you will change your bowing and nothing will happen.

With a good viola when you draw your bow from the fingerboard towards the bridge increasing the weight you will notice a big change in volume and colour of the sound. Just good instruments offer that.
The viola must not choke when you play FFF near the bridge.

Avoid hollow sound, look for a focused sound.

Clarity is important too, when playing quick passages the notes should not mix.

Check the instrument in the upper regions of the C and G strings. You may not be using the 7th positions of the C string now but as you start studying more difficult pieces you will have to do that. Just good violas will sound good in high positions of the C string, in general you will have many wolves and rasped notes there.

Playing confort: not only the size matters here but also string length, upper bouts width, rib height, weight, feeling "under the chin". Try to play in high positions of the C string.

Look for a quick response too.

October 2, 2019, 6:46 PM · I might look to commission, somewhere down the road, a violin modeled after the “grand pattern” of Nicolò Amati. I read that this pattern produced very good tonal results.
October 2, 2019, 8:19 PM · Here's an interesting press article about Anthony Nickolds: LINK

He claims that the players get to choose their wood and see the process, but also mentions that making a new violin can take "hundreds of hours" (it's mentioned in the context of the restoration comments in that article). He also notes that half his time goes to making, and it takes three to six months to make an instrument.

That suggests that making doesn't provide him a living wage, and it's basically a sideline to running a shop.

October 3, 2019, 9:34 AM · I highly endorse Erin Sabrini's recommendation of the book "The Violin Maker." This outstanding read tells the story of violinist Eugene Drucker's commissioning of a new violin from maker Sam Zygmuntowicz. Drucker is a founding violinist of the Emerson Quartet and owned and played a Stradivarius at the time of the commission. Zygmuntowicz is probably the world's most acclaimed current maker (and history may eventually claim of the 20th and 21st century).

Player and maker are always at the mercy of the wood and the player's ears and taste and to me this tale makes that very clear. I would always prefer to purchase an existing instrument to gambling on a commission - and Oh! the waiting - you could trial a thousand instruments during the time it would take to await completion of a commission.

October 3, 2019, 10:04 AM · Andrew's characteristically wise thoughts about purchasing vs. commissioning are well taken.

But there is another side to commissioning that bears consideration. When artworks are commissioned, the client is functioning at least partly as a patron of the art. Violin-making is viewed mostly as a craft, insofar as the product's value lies mainly in its practical utility. But it's an art too. That makes me wonder how many commissions are secured by clients who are primarily interested in playing the violin as their primary instrument, versus collectors. Here an operational definition of "collector" would include players who are going to use that violin less than, say, a third of the time (e.g., the Raphael Klaymans among us).

Edited: October 3, 2019, 1:45 PM · Paul, I guess that makes me a "collector" too.

I have written here numerous times of my friend who took up violin (and viola and cello) making in his 40s as a hobby and continued it into his 80s, most recently completing his 101st instrument. I was there near his beginning and heard what may have been his best violin (#11) before I played it and waited for others to reject it before I bought it. Professionally, he was a mechanical engineer who had all the equipment to make "engineering measurements" on his raw materials and the parts as the work on each instrument progressed. He was always very "scientific" about his work and (sometimes) innovative in his methods and kept meticulous records for each instrument (and provided copies of the written records to those who bought them).

I was in a position to play some of his instruments "in the white" - (after the construction was competed but before the finishing was started) AND later when all the work was done, both in his shop and in a large venue.

I did request 2 instruments from him before they were made - I suppose you could call them "commissions" - a violin to replace the one I gave my granddaughter and a viola. Neither quite lived up to the one I gave my granddaughter, but he is a friend - and for about $1,800 and $1,200, respectively, they were still bargains. I do play the viola all the time and it sounds good and responds well. The violin is lacking some resonance qualities - maybe it is time to check out the soundpost after 20 years.

Edited: October 5, 2019, 7:03 AM · To go back to the original question, each maker will let you know what they need to know.

Some have one model and their preferred finish, so it comes down to your shipping address. Another guy I know “copies” about 20 different fiddles, including more than one Storioni, etc. So you can try versions of all of those and predict which one will sing to you. Others will do Strad or Del Gesu: period. But they will let you decide about antiquing. Very personal set of tastes.

As with a suit, bespoke tailoring will still be in something of a house style. So you have to know about the eye of your cutter and not just believe the front-of-house man who says “we can do anything you want.”

Edited: October 6, 2019, 3:07 PM · Andrew--I read in an old discussion that you, too, have a regraduated German trade viola! Mine came with Helicore strings; I'm wondering what you are using??

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